JOHN TOMSON (1616-1696)
By Gaylen Bunker
In August of 1623 a 140-ton ship, the "Anne", arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts. On board were 60 passengers including Elizabeth Warren and seven children, Elizabeth's husband, Richard, had come on the Mayflower and she was now joining him. Of the seven children with Elizabeth, six were her own and one was her orphaned nephew, John Tonsom. Young John had been born in northern England in 1616 and was six years old, the same age as the Warren's own daughter, Elizabeth.
In 1636 John's cousin, Elizabeth, married Richard Church and from that point on Richard Church and John Tomson became close companions. In 1637 richard and John contracted with the town's agent to construct Plymouth's first frame meeting house. When the building was completed the agent would not honor the agreement and so Richard and John took him to court. As compensation for his labor the court awarded John deed to a piece of land that extended back from the market-house to the herring brook, later called Spring Hill.
In 1645, John proposed marriage to Mary Cooke, daughter of Francis (Mayflower traveler) and Hester Cooke. Mary was born in May of 1624 at Plymouth, Massachusetts, so when she and John Tomson married on March 3, 1645 she was 21 and he was 29. During that first year of their marriage Mary was to catch a glimpse of the demands on John to deal with Indian problems. In August of 1645, John went on an expedition against the Narragansetts and was away sixteen days. He was a man of imposing physical strength and stature, being six feet, three inches in height, and he became a natural leader.
Mary and John lived for several years at Sandwich on the arm of Cape Cod, and it was here that most of their children were born. Adam in 1646, who died when one and one-half years old; John in 1648; Mary in 1650; Ester in 1652; Elizabeth in 1654; Sarah in 1657; Lydia in 1659; and Jacob in 1662. As the land along the coast was becoming more populated, the value and need for more land and room became a major concer for many. Mary and John were no exception.
There was strong sentiment among the ruling fathers that the early residents of Plymouth, referred to as the ancient freemen, were to have preferential treatment in the granting of new land, not only for themselves but for their children. On Jun. 13, 1662, Francis Cooke, an ancient freeman, was granted the option to join with Josiah Winslow and others in the purchase of land near Namasseket. Francis was nearing 80 years of age and could sense that death was not long off, so he called John and Mary to his side. He turned over his rights to part of this land to his son-in-law, John Tomson, and then turned to Mary. On April 7, 1663 Francis Cooke died. It was about this time that John and Mary decided to move to the new property in the inland forests among the Indians.
With the land that Francis Cooke had given them and other land purchased from William Wetis-pa-quin, sachem of the Neponsets, thirteen miles west of Plymouth, Mary and John Tomson carved out a home in the village of Middleborough. In 1662, John, at age 46 and Mary, age 38 commenced to clear part of the land to locate a dwelling. After working awhile John became thirsty and went into a valley near by in quest of water. There he found a lively brook of pure water and came to the conclusion that the spring could not be far away. He accordingly followed the brook up about one hundred rods and came tot he fountain-head of pur, gushing water. It was decided this was a much better place for their home, so a clearing was made and a log house built.
It was here in Middleborough that the last three of their eleven children were born: Thomas in 1664, Peter in 1668, and Mercy in 1671. As the community grew John took on several community responsibilities. Records show that of the three selectmen elected in Middleborough between 1674 and 1687, John Tomson was the first chosen each and every year. John was esteemed for his moral and religious character.
John's cousin, Elizabeth Warren Church, had a son by the name of Benjamin Church. He relocated to an area west of Middleborough, close to the home of Philip, the chief of the Wampanoags. On trips between his hom and Plymouth he would stop and visit with John. On one occasion in 1674 he warned that the peaceful Indians in that vicinity were becoming more hostile. On his advice John contracted with Jabez Soule of Plympton to share the training of an Indian boy named Peter Pringle. Peter would spend two weeks with the Soules at Plympton and the next two weeks with John and Mary at Middleborough. The plan was to teach the youth to learn to work and live like the English. But more subtly, whenever Peter would steal away to meet with his tribe, it was a warning that an uprising was at hand and the Tomsons should tgo to either the garrison at Middleborough or to Plymouth.
In January of 1675 the rumors of increased thenson with the Indians continued to circulate. Sassamon, a Christianized, educated Indian who was a teacher to friendly Indians at Middleborough, was killed by three malicious Indians. Sassamon had at one time served as chief Philip's secretary and the trio feared that he was now warning the Plymouth government of a Wampanoag conspiracy to wage a general war. In the first part of June 1675 the three Indians were tried and subsequently executed for Sassamon's death, which further created unrest. The Wampanoags became enraged, particularly Philip their king.
This was the last straw and culminated 55 years of growing resentment between the English and the Indians. for years the two cultures had been in conflict over the concept of proplerty as it applied to land. For the Indians, land could not be owned but was for all to use. Even when they sold a piece to the English, they still considered it accepssible by all. to the English, land was wealth and status and once purchased, was the exclusive domain of the owner. when the great chief Massasoit, who had been such a good firend of the Pilgrims, died he was succeeded by his two sons. First, Alexander and the Philip. It was this Philip who was pushed beyond tolerance.
One day in mid-June, 1675, Mary was alone working when three young Wampanoag men came into the house. They behaved rudely, kicking over the chairs and creating havoc. One of them went to the pot and pulled a fish out that Mary had been boiling. Mary would have none of this and reprimanded the young warrior where upont he drew his knife and began brandishing it about in a threatening manner. Mary seized a splint broom and went on the attack, driving the three from the house.
The next day was Sunday. John and Mary arose at 4 o'clock in the morning, which was their custom every morning, had breakfast, and John pressed a cheese before sunrise. cheese was a special treat for the Sabbath. John was a regular attendant at the sanctuary. After he had made his clearing and moved into this log house, either he or his wife would go every sabbath to the village of Plymouth, a distance of more than thirteen miles, the only place where they had an Elder to speak to them. The members of the family, male and female, requently walked the distance to attend meeting and return home the same day.
On this particular day, Mary and the children set out for Sabbath meeting and John remained at home in case of trouble. As the family walked on in the darkness toward Plymouth they heard the barking of a pack of wolves. It frightened them to the point that they sought refuge upon a high rock, called "Hand-rock" on the side of the road. There they remained until after sunrise, when the wolves retired and they proceeded on their Sabbath journey.
Later that day saveral Indians came into the house in a rowdy manner. Sensing danger, John apprehensively seated himself on a chair in the corner of the room. He laid his long gun across his lap on which he rested his hands. In one hand he clutched his brass pistol. The Indians would suddenly act firnedly, come over to him, pat him on the shoulder, and try to take the long gun. John would look back at them sternly and raise the pistol slightly, at which the Indians would look at each other and stop back. They laitered about the house a while and then returned to the forest.
Mary and the children returned safely that evening from church and enjoyed the cheese. The next day, John went into the forest with Peter Pringle to work. While working, John talked about the Indians and inquired of Peter, "I wonder why they never attempted to kill me."
At this Peter replied, "Master, I have cocked my gun many a time to shoot you, but I loved you so well I could not."
They returned home as evening was approaching. Once at the house John noticed Peter slip away into the forest. On greeting Mary, John inquired if any Indians had come by during the day. Mary said their had been a number of them and they had been uncommonly friendly and helpful. They followed her into the garden and helped her pick some beans. John replied, "there is trouble ahead; we must pack up immediately and go to the garrison, [at four corners in Middleborough]." They worked throught the night and the next day.
In the early evening the teams were prepared, wagons were packed with a portion of the families belongings, and the rest was buried in a pit by the swamp. As darkness descended they were tow miles along their way to the garrison when a bright light illuminated the forest behind them and they knew their home was being devoured in flames. alomng the road they passed the home of William Danson, and urged him to join them. He said the he could not leave until the morning and would come then.
Tuesday morning John and mary sent their son John with two others from the garrison to inspect their deserted farm. Along the road the riders discovered a pair of leather shoes and Danson's beaver hat. they hurried with all speed to the farm and back. On their return the leather shoes and hat were gone. As they approahced a brook they saw Danson's remains, who became one of the first filled in King Philip's War and the only one killed at Middleborough. The spot where he died was thereafter called Danson's Brook.
At the garrison, sixteen men were aseblemed as the military force and selected John Tomson as their commander. The men had a various assortment of weapons. John was equipped with his long gun, brass pistol, sword and halberd (long spear/hatchet weapon). The total length of the long gun, including the stock and barrel was seven feet four and one-half inches. The length of the barrel alone was six feet one and one-half inches. The rifle weighed twenty pounds twelve ounces and its caliber was twelve balls to the pound. It was quite a muscular feat just to hold the gun at arms length, sight and object, and fire. The sword was three feet five and one-half inches in length, with the blade only two feet eleven and three-eighths inches.
For several days the Indians would come to a point opposit the fort on the south sice of the Namasket river, climb onto "Hand-rock," and taunt the settlers with insulting gestures. On the third day, as a man was looking through a spy-glass, he noticed the taunting Indians were wearing Danson's hat and waving his shoes. He reported to Thomson who turned to Isaace Howland, a heralded marksman, and ordered him to shoot the Indian. the distance from the fort to the rock was nearly a half mile, one hundred and fifty-five rods. Howland took Thomson's long-gun, rested the barrel on the bottom of one of the port hole windows. The settlers grew still and the only sound was of a few faint Indian cries. When Howland was ready he squeezed the trigger and the familiar sound of the musket, clikc-sis-boom, seemed to echo off the forest walls. Instantly after the shot, the Indian, in mid gesture, was hurled to the ground, mortally wounded.
Three points of a triangle were formed by the garrison, hand-rock, and a mill, that was at a glightly lower elevation. As the Indians gathered to inspect their fallen comrade, Ephraim Tinkham from the garrison noticed isaac Billington away operating his mill. Francis Coombs instatnly ran to the warning bell, that was the call for all to come to the garrison as fast as possible and rang out an alarm. Billington looked to the garrison and saw the men waving for him to come quickly. He dropped everything and began to sprint through the trees. the Indians suddenly heard the bell, saw the man running through the forest, and set out to intercept the scrambling worker. Billington's race provided a tense few minutes for the garrison's inhabitants, but it was later said that no person ever covered the distance so quickly. He got to the garrison scarcely in time and was pronounced safe. He had left his hat and coat on a pole, by the mill, which the Indians riddled with balls before setting the mill afire.
As the Indians returned to their wounded warrior, they lifted him high into the air to carry him off into the woods. John Tomson looked through the spy-glass and indentified the limp body of his own Peter Pringle. Thomson lowered the glass and dropped into a chair in dispair. The Indians then carried Pringle two miles to a vacant farm house where he died that night. Ceremonies were held wherein the body and farm house were burned to the ground the next day.
The war continued for almost two years and the governor gave John a general commission as Lieutenant commandant of the garrison, the field and all posts of danger. He was forever afterward referred to as Lieut. John Tomson. One source reports "[John Tomson] and his men were very active in forcibly contending with the Indians in 1675, and in Philip's war of 1676, braving every danger and meeting the enemy at every point where he could be found. Having associated much with the Indians in early life, he made himself acquainted aprtilyy with their language, their habits and customs, and from their manners could discern the motives of their conduct. Often did they attempt to waylan and ambush him, but his vigilance never slept, and his prudence and matured judgment effectually guarded his safety. His stern and positive manner awed them into fear, and his inflexibile courage subdued them to cowardice. Whenever he came in contact with them he triumphed and they were defeated, until they believed the Great Spirit protected him that he could not be killed. Tradition gives him credit for having repeatedly saved the settlements of Halifax and Middleborough by his superior skill and well-timed precaution."
Although King Philip's War broke out in the country around Plymouth, it spread to all the colonies in New England. It was no ordinary war, but a bitter fight of extermination waged by the Wampanoag, Nipmuck, and Narraganset Indians against the settlers of Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, rhode Island, and Connecticut. It became clear that whoever won the war would dominate the area for years to come. As a resutl of the war over six hundren colonists were killed, of which three hundred were women and children. Thirteen settlements were totally wiped out and over six hundred dwellings were burned. Althought the loss was staggering for the colonists it was even worse for the Indians who were nearly wiped-out.
King Philip's War ended in 1677. The hero of the war for Plymouth was Captain Benjamin Church, son of Richard Church, and cousin, protege, confidant, and friend of John Tomson. Church and his men tracked King Philip to Mount Hope, west of Middleborough, where they encircled him and his outnumbered warriors with a superior force. As Philip tried to excape, he was shot and killed by one of Church's men, thus bringing King Philip's War to an end. The Indian force was annihilated, their property taken, and their culture shattered. The end for the southern New England Indians was total and forever.
At the end of the war, John and Mary returne to their farm, built a framd house near where their former home had stood. Their new home was 38 feet long and 30 feet wide. It was built more like a garrison than a home for it had loop holes and was lined with brick to protect against musket balls. Even at age 61, John put into the building of his home all his loving care and craftsmanship. There is no doubt that John's sons assisted in the construction. The west front room was 18 feet square, and the east 18 feet by 12 feet. Each with a fireplace capable of buring four foot logs, The front of the house was two stories and in the back one story, the lower story being seven feet high. It was built of white oak, there was not plaster, and the insdie was finished in cedar. It was here that John and Mary lived out the remainder of their days with their children around them.
The following tribute was paid to John: "This father of warriors and statemen had but few opportunities for education, and of course his literary acquirements were very limited. Nature, however, had endowed him with a strong, active and vigorous intellect, which he greatly improved by experience and observation. He seemed to have an intuitive knowledge, but whtat chiefly supported him in all these trials and privations, and ever sustained him when surrounded by perils, was his firm conviction of the great truths of the Christian revelation, the duties it imposed, the promises it offered and the hopes it inspired. He was pious from a deep sense of his religious obligation and the well being of society. Chastened in his feelings in obedience to the dictates of conscience, he practiced the virtues of humility, meekness and charity from an abiding confidence in the wisdom, justice, and mercy of God. Honesty, integrity and fidelity with him were common and ordinary duties, while those to his Heavely Father were never avoided or delayed, but with becoming reverence propletly performed. We connot reflect upon the life of such a man without exteem for his virtues and respect for his character. Greatness was incident to his goodness, and his courage the result of moral rectitude."
John passed away June 16th, 1696 at the age of 79 and Mary on March 21, 1714 at the age of 87. They were buried side by side in the first burying ground in Middleborough. There is a marker on John's grave that reads. "In memory of Lieut. John Tomson, who died June 16th, ye 1696, in ye 80 year of his age. this is a debt to nature due; which I have paid and so must you." John originally spelled his last name Tomson, but through the years the family has evolved the name to included an h and p, to where it is spelled Thompson.